That's not to say there aren't recognizable names on rosters at this point. Brianne McLaughlin was on the US Olympic team in Sochi in 2014, and she'll be suiting up for the Buffalo Beauts. Janine Weber, formerly of the CWHL's Boston Blades, signed with the New York Riveters, and she's best known for her Clarkson Cup-winning overtime goal last season. Madison Packer, Emily Field, and Jillian Dempsey are names that you should know if you're following the collegiate game as well, but there seems to be a distinct lack of star power in the NWHL.
Much like the WHA during its start, being an upstart hockey league with the promise of paying players more than they've seen in "that other league" means nothing unless they can land a major star. It took the WHA's owners banding together and driving a dump truck of money down to Portage and Main in Winnipeg to get Bobby Hull - arguably the biggest star in the NHL at the time - to sign with Winnipeg. With Hull signing, however, the influx of NHL stars followed soon after as players like Gerry Cheevers, Derek Sanderson, and Bernie Parent made the jump to the WHA.
The NWHL may have to make the same kind of push if they're going to gain some legitimacy on the CWHL in terms of star players. As of right now, there aren't a lot of faces that the average American fan is going to recognize. Names like Hilary Knight, Brianna Decker, Jessie Vetter, Kendall Coyne, and Kacey Bellamy are still unsigned, and these players should bring immediate legitimacy to the league if the NWHL can get them to sign. If not, the NWHL may go through a lot of programs at games this season.
It was a foregone conclusion that many of the Canadian Olympians and recognizable stars would remain with their respective CWHL clubs, but the Boston Blades was the one CWHL team where things could change dramatically thanks to the Boston Pride rivaling them for players and fans. The Blades are stocking the NWHL with players in a way as all of the players who were relegated to less-than-regulars are jumping ship. The aforementioned Janine Weber along with Corinne Buie, Kelly Cooke, Jess Koizumi, and Alyssa Gagliardi have already signed with NWHL teams while players like Casey Pickett and Denna Laing skated in Boston's edition of the NWHL tryout camps.
While I fault none of the players above for going and finding more playing time than the third line on the CWHL's Boston Blades, players and American Olympians like Knight, Decker, Meghan Duggan, and the Lamoureux twins remain uncommitted to any NWHL team where their presence is needed. Like Hull did for the WHA in legitimizing the league, any of these players - or any others who are recognizable by name - signing in the NWHL would, in theory, kick-start the signings of other notable players.
The question, therefore, should be asked if the owners of the respective NWHL teams should band together like the owners in the WHA did, throw a pile of money into a pot in order to sign a major player like the WHA did for Bobby Hull, and bring on a Hilary Knight and a Brianna Decker to help the entire league gain a foothold.
As much as this sounds like a terrible business idea for the four NWHL owners, it's not so far-fetched when you consider that one of the NCAA's best players in Marie-Philip Poulin went home to Montreal to play with the CWHL's Stars rather than grabbing a paid roster spot in the NWHL. Poulin was a household name in Boston, and she would instantly make Boston better. The same can be said for any of the American Olympians who are household names across the United States, yet there hasn't been one big-name player signing by the NWHL.
While I have no issues with any of the women signed as they all have made their respective teams on merit, the NWHL is turning into a second-tier women's league with a few lesser-known players from elite Division-I NCAA schools and a pile of players from lesser-known programs in the northeastern United States. The marketing and message of the NWHL at the start of their campaign was to have the best players playing in the NWHL. So far, they're falling short on the delivery of that promise.
As it stands, the NWHL is giving a pile of women a chance to play hockey for money, but I'm not sure they're going to build rabid fanbases without some of the elite women hockey stars. They need to make a splash to give the league some legitimacy as well as giving the fans a reason to come and watch these games. In saying that, it might be time to tear a page from the history books for the NWHL and try something that worked for one upstart league for a while.
Otherwise, their history may be shorter than the WHA's history.
Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!